In a backstreet near Seven Dials is an unassuming building that is a rare survivor from the early Methodist movement. This is the West Street Chapel. A plaque on the wall states ‘John and Charles Wesley preached here frequently’, which perhaps underplays the importance of the building. This was John Wesley’s first chapel in the West End and one of the principal centres of London Methodism.
The chapel was built in 1700 by Protestant Huguenots, refugees from France, who had settled in the Soho area. The history of the Huguenots and Methodism is deeply entwined: the first Methodist Covenent Service was held in the Old French Chapel in Spitalfields and a number of the early Methodists had Huguenot roots.
John Wesley leased the property from 1743, for the rent of £18 per annum. His sister lived in the chapel house next door. From then until 1798, when Great Queen Street Chapel was built, West Street was the base for Methodist mission in the West End.
West Street is mentioned a number of times in Wesley’s Journal, the first reference being on Trinity Sunday, 29th May 1743:
I began officiating at the chapel in West Street, near the Seven Dial, of which (by a strange chain of providences) we have a lease for several years. I preached on the gospel for the day, part of the third chapter of St. John; and afterwards administered the Lord’s Supper to some hundreds of communicants. I was a little afraid at first that my strength would not suffice for the business of the day, when a service of five hours (for it lasted from ten to three) was added to my usual employment. But God looked to that: so I must think; and they that will call it enthusiasm may.
This passage gives a clue as to the importance of West Street in the life of the Methodist movement. As a consecrated chapel, Wesley regarded it as a suitable place to celebrate the sacrament. The Old French Chapel in Spitalfields fulfilled a similar function in the East End of London.
After the chapel passed out of Methodist use in 1798 it was put to a variety of purposes: as a school, a chapel-of-ease for St Giles-in-the-Fields, and a ballet school. Today it houses a photographic imaging laboratory. The pulpit from which Wesley preached during his tenure of the building survives and is now in the church of St Giles.
For more information see the West Street page at ‘In and Around Covent Garden’.